Recent research at the University of North Carolina and elsewhere, into how we perceive emotions reveals that having a name for an emotion is important in both how we experience it and how we cope with it. Academic Tiffany watt Smith[1] at Queen Mary University in London explains that “putting a name to a feeling can soothe us, bringing coherence to internal turbulence… [but may also] play an even deeper role in our emotional lives , not only helping us manage feelings, but actually bringing them into being in the first place. ”

Different languages have words that describe and evoke emotions outside the normal Anglo-Saxon lexicon. Writing in New Scientist[2], Watts explains that German has two separate words to describe different kinds of disgust. The Pintupi of Western Australia recognise 15 types of fear, each with a different emotional and hence physiological response. Thais have an emotion called greng jai, reluctance to accept an offer of help, because of the bother it would cause the other person. Japanese has an emotional construct called amae, which happens when we are able to be comforted by another in a loving manner than creates no obligation to be grateful in return. The Baining tribe in Papua New Guinea feel deeply when a visitor departs – a kind of heaviness, a mixture of sorrow to see them go and relief to be able to get back to normal. The Inuit, by contrast, use the word Iktsuarpok to describe the anticipation of an awaited visitor arriving. One of my personal favourites from my own files is rawa-dawa, which comes from the Mundari language of the Indian subcontinent and means “the moment of suddenly realising you can do something reprehensible and no-one is there to witness it”.

For the coach or mentor, a useful lesson from these insights is that we can better help clients understand and manage their emotions, if they have the words to access them. A simple approach, when a client is struggling to define an emotion, is to ask them to tell a short story about it. When they have done so, you can ask them to create a word for it. This becomes part of your shared vocabulary and provides a short-cut to exploring this emotion, whenever it recurs.

[1] Watts, TS (2105) The Book of Human Emotions, Profile Books, London

[2] Watts, TS (2015, Buzz words, New Scientist 19 September 41-43

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